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Science and Technology- for what?

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Dr.C.S. Weeraratna
csweera@sltnet.lk

The World Science Day falls on 10th Nov. 2020. This article highlights the need to utilize Science and Technology to solve the critical issues the country is facing,

 

We Sri Lankans face many critical problems. Among these are

 

* Rapid spread of the virus COVID- 19 in 24 districts.

* Chronic Kidney disease of unknown etiology which is affecting nearly 200,000 people in 10 districts

* Water shortage in many parts of the country.

* Landslides mainly in Badulla, Kandy, Mathale, and Nuwara Eliya districts ,

* High cost of production in the plantation and non-plantation (domestic) sector Poverty

* Effective disposal of solid waste,

* Malnutrition mainly among children and

* Unemployment/under employment

A wide Trade Deficit

 

We have thousands of scientists specialized in various fields and they have an important role to play in developing Science and Technology (S&T) for the benefit of the people and the country. A primary objective of use of S&T in a developing country such as Sri Lanka must be to conduct appropriate studies on the critical issues and advice the authorities on relevant action to be taken.. It was as far as back as in 1978 that the first policy statement on S&T for the country was developed with the involvement of late Professors Stanley Kalpage and Cyril Ponnamperuma. This was followed by the S&T Development Act passed by the Parliament in 1994. Since then a number of organizations were established to promote S&T in the country, Among these organizations was the National Commission on Science and Technology (NASTEC) established in 1998 with the powers to function as a policy advisory body on S&T. NASTEC developed an integrated action plan in collaboration with the scientific institutions in the country. However, this action plan did not come into fruition due to reasons beyond the control of NASTEC. In 2013, a new organization called the Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI) was established to coordinate, monitor the progress and implement the strategy. In addition the National Science Council now called National Science Foundation (NSF), the Council for Agricultural Research Policy (CARP), Agrarian Research and Training Institute (ARTI) etc were established to promote S&T . Thus, we have so many organizations on S&T but there appears to be no effective strategy to use S&T for the social and economic development of the country.

Most of the South and South East Asian countries during the last two decades, developed substantially by effective use of Science and Technology (S&T). They based their development policies, and strategies on science, technology and innovations. In Sri Lanka there are numerous organizations which are expected to conduct/promote research. Among these organizations are the 15 universities, National Science Foundation, the Council for Agricultural Research Policy, Agrarian Research and Training Institute, Institute of Fundamental Studies, National Research Council of Sri Lanka etc. which use a considerable amount of scarce financial resources. However, these organizations appear to have not made any significant contribution to find solutions to the issues indicated above. Research efforts need to be directed more towards those issues, which have a direct/indirect impact on the economy and people of the country.

Conducting research alone will not lead to economic development unless the technologies developed by research are made use or commercialized. The scientific organizations such as Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, Dept. of Agriculture, universities etc. hold annual scientific meetings, at which the findings of research are presented. Papers are read, but there appears to be no effective strategy to utilize the recommendations/ research findings presented. . The issue of Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) is a case in point. Nearly 200,000 people in 10 districts are reported to be affected by CKDu. The direct and indirect effects of CKDu on the socio-economy of the country are substantial. A number of seminars/symposia on CKDu hve been conducted during the last few years. A few years ago, a meeting (an expert consultation) organized by the World Health Organization(WHO) and Presidential Task Force on CKDu was held in Colombo. This meeting was attended by 54 local and international experts. A few millions would have been spent on this activity. The participants had discussions for 3 days and came out with 27 recommendations but there appears to be no outcome of this meeting. The authorities are concerned in conducting more and more seminars/workshops and symposia without any plan to effectively utilize the findings/conclusions. As indicated at the beginning of this article, while our neighboring countries are showing rapid development, we lag behind for lack of systematic use of S&T.

Organizations such as the Industrial Development Board, the Board of Investments etc. need to coordinate with the relevant scientific organizations to attract investments on commercialization of proven technologies. Vidatha Centers have been established in many DS Divisions to commercialize S&T. Perhaps the relevant organizations may look into what extent these Vidatha Centers have been effective in commercializing S&T.

There are ministers who are expected to address these issues. They need to collaborate with the relevant institutions to find practical solutions to the problems affecting the country. Landslides causing death to a large number of people and destruction to property is evident in many parts of the country. Rainfall of high intensity and erosivity, and inappropriate land management practices are the main factors attributable to landslides causing enormous damage to life and property. It is necessary that preventive action is taken . There is an expert committee under the Ministry of Environment to advice the Ministry on issues related to land degradation. But, this ministry has not called a meeting of this committee for the last few years to discuss and decide what actions need to be taken to control landslides.

 

High costs in the agricultural sector:

One of the main issues in the agriculture sector is high cost of production. This is partly attributed to cost of fertilizers and pesticides on which we spend around Rs. 40 billions annually to import. However, not much attention appears to have been paid on using bio- fertilizers and bio- pesticides which can be manufactured locally and which are less expensive. A number of compounds such as nicotine, pyrethrin and azadirachtin of plant origin have insecticidal properties, and can be effectively used to control some insect pests. These organic compounds are present in locally grown plants. Development of pesticides from those local plants and promoting their use in controlling pests, would reduce costs and also provide employment in the rural areas. But the relevant authorities appear to have not taken action to get the experts involved in implementing appropriate action. Eppawela Apatite (EA), a mineral containing phosphorus, was discovered a few decades ago. Still we grind this mineral and use the ground apatite as a P fertilizer while spending millions to import Single Superphosphate and Triple Super Phosphate, which can be manufactured from EA.

 

Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science

Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) the premier scientific body in the country has a membership of about 4000 representing various fields such as Medicine, Agriculture and Forestry, Biological, Physical, Social Sciences etc. SLASS can do a very valuable service to the country in relation to S&T by coordinating with the thousands of scientists in the association. However, SLAAS is unable to carry out this service effectively due to short of funds. While the ministers and other politicians spend millions to import luxury cars, the activities of this premier scientific organization in the country is hampered by inadequate funds.

 

 



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Features

Why record export earnings may not be good news

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By Gomi Senadhira

The press release by the Central Bank on the external sector performance ,in June 2022, perhaps was the first piece of good news we had received for a long time. According to the press release, “Earnings from merchandise exports, in June 2022, increased by 23.9 percent over the corresponding month, in 2021, recording US dollars 1,248 million, which is the highest ever monthly export earnings recorded. An increase in earnings of both industrial and agricultural exports contributed to this favourable outcome, …. Cumulative export earnings, from January to June 2022, also increased by 14.3 percent, over the same period in the last year, amounting to US dollars 6,514 million.” So, most of us would think we have enough dollars to cover our essential imports. But, apparently, that is not the case.

Earlier, the Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, had said that exporters only converted about 20% of their export earnings into Sri Lankan Rupees and the rest was not brought back to Sri Lanka. That amounts to the US $800 million a month! The Governor had also said “… At least 40% of the total export earnings should be added to the formal financial system of the country. So exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system, and if that happens, then we can resolve the fuel crisis comfortably.”

(Diesel shipment that arrived in Colombo, on 16 July, still not paid for want of dollars – The Island July 30th) It appears as if the Governor is pleading with the exporters to bring back at least 40% of their export earnings. More notably, from Dr Weerasinghe’s statement, it is clear that the exporter had only converted 20% of their export earnings to rupees during the last five months. Did they convert their export earnings to rupees during the last year, or in the previous years? For how long has this been going on? When the Central Bank says “… exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system,” does that mean the foreign exchange earned, with the exports, is brought through the hawala network, or other similar arrangements?

Exporters deserve credit for the great service they provide and should be rewarded, appropriately. But not disproportionately. The export earnings are not earned by the exporters alone. These earnings are earned by all those who contribute to manufacturing the export products. All of them should be getting their fair share of the export proceeds. If not, there is something terribly wrong with the system. Is this normal in international trade?

During the last few years, some of the studies by Indian scholars, including Utsa Patnaik and Shashi Tharoor, have placed in the public domain some of the less known facts on the effects of the British colonial rule on India. They explain how the British seized India, “… one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest,” and how during the period British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India.

How was this done? Patnaik explains, “In the colonial era, most of India’s sizeable foreign exchange earnings went straight to London—severely hampering the country’s ability to import machinery and technology in order to embark on a modernisation path, similar to what Japan did in the 1870s. …, a third of India’s budgetary revenues was … set aside as ‘expenditure abroad’. The secretary of state (SoS) for India, based in London, invited foreign importers to deposit with him the payment (in gold and sterling) for their net imports from India, which disappeared into the SoS’s account in the Bank of England. Against these Indian earnings he issued bills… to an equivalent rupee value—which was paid out of the budget, from the part called ‘expenditure abroad’.” Patnaik underlines that this was “something you’d never find in any independent country,”

But it appears something very similar is happening in Sri Lanka, many years after the independence! If the exporters do not “bring back their foreign exchange ,through the banking system,” or only bring back 20% of it, then how do they pay for goods and services obtained locally? The local value addition for most of our exports is 70% to 80% or higher! The only major exception is cut and polished diamonds. Tea exporters buy tea with rupees. Some of the imported inputs, like fertiliser, or diesel, are sourced locally! The garment industry had moved up the value chain during the last 40 years and provide many value-added services, like designing, locally.

How do the exporters pay for all these goods and services, if they keep more than 60% of their export earnings outside the country? Do they get it through “hawala” or similar arrangements? During the British Raj, payments to local producers were done with the taxes collected by the Raj. In present-day Sri Lanka, how does one manage to raise a large amount of cash to operate such a system?

If a sizeable chunk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings goes straight to banks in London, New York, Zurich, or elsewhere, severely hampering the country’s ability to import essential items, doesn’t that mean, Sri Lanka’s wealth is getting siphoned out through our exports? And there is not much of a difference between what happened during the colonial period and the post independent Sri Lanka!

So, June’s record export earnings also mean nearly US$ billion was siphoned off during the month! A new record for the month of June! And that means Patnaik was wrong when she said this was not “something you’d never find in any independent country”

That is not good news.

(The writer is a specialist on trade and development issues and can be contacted at senadhiragomi@gmail.com)

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Improving trend needs to be sustained on multiple fronts

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by Jehan Perera

The government appears to have secured political stability in the short term.  So far President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to restore stability appear to be working. Political stability is necessary for decisions to be made and kept.  It is a necessary element for international support to come in.  One of the IMF’s conditions to provide the country with the multi-billion-dollar loan it seeks is political stability that would ensure that commitments that are made will be kept.  The protest movement has not mobilised public demonstrations on the very large scale of the past after the appearance of Ranil Wickremesinghe in leadership positions, initially as prime minister and subsequently as president. This would be seen as an achievement by the government.  The present governmental line that protests should be within the law is difficult, and also frightening, to challenge when a state of emergency is in force.

The government has shown its ability to wield the emergency law with deterrent effect. Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention. The state of emergency also gives the president and the police broad powers to ban public gatherings, allows the police or military to order anyone to leave any public place or face arrest, and makes it an offense to cause “disaffection” or to spread “rumours.” However, in a sign that Sri Lanka’s system of checks and balances is still working, the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court has rejected a request by the police to ban a public protest planned by political parties and multiple organisations on September 9.

Human Rights watch has pointed out that “these provisions are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.”  The midnight strike on the protestors who had camped for over three months at the main protest site at Galle Face would make any reasonable person think twice before getting into physical confrontation with the government.  The social media coverage of events that night showed men in black uniform and wearing masks, attacking the unarmed protestors.  As these men did not wear identification badges, there is a question whether they were part of the official security forces or drawn from other groups that work with them.  This response brought discredit to the perpetrators and disturbed both Sri Lankan people and the international community that have the welfare of Sri Lanka at heart.

The government has also used the full power of the draconian law to ensure that the leadership of the protest movement is neutralised. Several of them have been arrested, some of them given bail, others remanded, which would send a chilling message to the others.  The government has also shown its willingness to offer high positions to those who are prepared to join it.  This has led to a situation where two trade union leaders active in the protest movement have been treated very differently.  One has been offered a high post while the other has been put into prison, although he has now been given bail.  In a signal that he is sensitive to public pressure and human rights concerns, President Wickremesinghe had spoken to leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, after he was remanded and reportedly said he admires the members of the protest movement who talk of a system change.

ECONOMIC STABILISATION

Apart from the appearance of political stability there is also the appearance of economic stabilisation.  The shortages of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, and the 13-hour power cuts were among the main catalysts of the protest movement.  It was during the period of long power cuts, when staying at home became unbearable, that neigbourhood groups began to converge in urban centres to hold candlelight protests.  However, at this time the supply of gas, petrol and diesel has improved significantly and the kilomere-long lines in front of fuel stations are much less common.  Credit has gone to the QR code system put in place that gives to each vehicle a weekly quota.

The challenge for the government is to ensure that the economic situation continues to be stable without experiencing the acute shortages of key items that causes distress to the general population.  The QR code system can only work if there is petrol and diesel to be distributed.  The current imports of cooking gas, petrol and diesel appear to have been made possible by a World Bank loan which was re-purposed to the purchase of essential items.  However, these funds will dry up soon.  The question is what will happen after that.  There is apprehension that the country will fall once again into a situation of severe shortage.  The government needs to take the people into its confidence regarding the future.  The government also needs to be trusted if it is to be believed.

The World Bank has given an indication that they are still to be convinced regarding the provision of further assistance to Sri Lanka.  Earlier this month, the World Bank issued a statement “expressing deep concern about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka yesterday said it does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place.  Issuing a statement, the World Bank Group said it is repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertiliser, meals for school children and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households.  To date, the World Bank has disbursed about US$160 million of these funds to meet urgent needs.”  This is extremely concerning as the World Bank is closely connected to the IMF on which Sri Lanka is pinning its hopes for a big loan.

POLITICAL STABILITY

The issue of political stability is highlighted by the government as being necessary to obtain international assistance and also as a justification for quelling the protest movement through emergency laws.  There is explicit blame being apportioned to the protest movement for creating instability in the polity that is deterring the influx of foreign assistance and investments.  However, the fuller picture needs to be seen.  The IMF as much as the World Bank, and indeed other potential sources of donor support, want their resources to be used for the intended purpose and not be squandered or siphoned away corrupt practices and in sustaining loss-making state institutions.

The hoped-for IMF-supported programme to provide assistance to Sri Lanka is being developed to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock the country’s growth potential. IMF mission team to Sri Lanka last month specifically mentioned the need to reduce corruption stating that “Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing the severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms.”

Both the international funding agencies and the protest movement are on the same page when it comes to opposing corrupt practices.  The main slogans of the protest movement during their heyday was the ouster of the then president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, and indeed the entire parliament, on account of the corruption that they believed was responsible for having denuded the country of its foreign exchange reserves. This was not simply the replacement of one set of corrupt leaders by another. There are disturbing signs that some of those accused of corruption are once again on the ascendant.

The underlying demand of the protest movement was and continues to be the very “systems change” that the president has said he admires in his reported discussion with remanded trade union leader Joseph Stalin. Civil disobedience to obtain a government that is transparent and law abiding, that does not steal the wealth of the country, is a noble goal, no less sacred than the civil disobedience struggles engaged in by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States.  The ingredients for a rebound of the protest movement continue to be in place and hopefully the evidence of a systems change will become more convincing.

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Brenda Mendis… ‘Gindara Kellek’

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I first got to know Brenda Mendis when she was very much a part of the group Aquarius, before joining Mirage..

With Aquarius, her dynamism bloomed, on stage, when she partnered two other female vocalists – from the Philippines.

And…yes, they certainly did rock the scene; the three girls were the talk-of the-town and they were featured at some of the best venues in the city.

She was also, at one time, associated with the band 2Forty2.

Brenda now operates with an outfit called C Plus Band, and with whatever free time, that comes her way, the talented artiste is now working on originals.

The latest is the song ‘Gindara Kellek’ and this is what Brenda has to say:

“I have known this guy Chathurangana de Silva for a very time and he has been involved in composing certain songs for the C Plus Band.

“We then got down to discussing about putting together a song which could be classified as a fast genre in music, and Chathurangana, along with Sampath Fernandopulle, came up with the suggestion for the lyrics, and they did so, based upon a proper observation of my lifestyle and the personality portrayal of myself, and that’s how “Gindara Kellek’ came into the scene.”

Brenda went on to say that the composing was done during a tight schedule.

“As I am the female vocalist, on a full time basis, with the C Plus Band, it took us more time than what is usual spent at a recording session, because of our public performances.”

‘Gindara Kellek’ is not Brenda’s maiden effort. She has been involved in quite a few other originals, including ‘Tharu Peedena Seethale,’ ‘Obai Mage Thaththe,’ ‘Mage Raththaran,’ ‘Kaprinna (Chooty),’ ‘You Never Know,’ ‘Mea Nilwan Nimnaye, and ‘Sitha Igilee Gihin.’ And, they are all uniquely different to each other, she says.

With the country going through a tough period, Brenda, spends her free time working out and reading.

“I would take this opportunity, through your very popular music page, to thank all those who helped me throughout my journey in this wonderful field of music.

“I shall continue to keep music lovers happy, with my music, and I would also thank my followers for supporting me and for being with me throughout my career in showbiz.”

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